Obviously the first place to begin with the topic of postmodernism is its definition. This is a difficult task because the nature of postmodernism is an inherent devaluing or softening of absolutes.
Postmodernity really begins in modernity. The reformation and enlightenment movements of the 16th and 18th centuries sparked a substantial shift in the discovery and definition of truth. The reformation brought about a renewed interest in the study of scripture. Both Luther and Calvin sought to gather their theology primarily (if not exclusively) through the text of scripture as opposed to the dual-source of theology of the catholic church: the scripture plus magisterium. This renewal of exposition of scripture also led to the enlightenment: the systematic study of the physical world. Though both movements started off good (and perhaps necessary), there appeared a subtle shift in the way people and scholars began to view the nature of knowledge or truth. The possibly of knowledge progressed from superstition of the church to the rationality of the human mind. Empirical evidence gathered though the senses informed the mind which is then able to construct rational explanations for everything. In short, the modern viewpoint was that anything can be rationally explained if one can objectively observe a phenomena.
This led directly to the destructive liberalism of the 19th and 20th centuries. Since knowledge is an aspect of the rational mind, one cannot accept the existence of God since He cannot be observed. Scriptures were attacked as well since many of the narratives claim to be prophetic which would imply that future event were known before they occurred, certainly something that defies rationality. The scripture as a whole also suffered from this paradigm shift. Instead of describing scripture as divine revelation, scriptures to the modern mindset were simply the evolution of human thought about God as they have been compiled over the centuries. It is touted that the Old Testament describes a view of God that is much different than the New. For example, the God of the OT is harsh and “blood thirsty” while the God of the NT is good and loving.
Fall of Modernity
If truth can only be discovered by the rational mind, then there is no place for irrational religion to stake a claim of truth. Thus it seemed in the 20th century that the truth claims of scripture were entirely rejected in favor of naturalistic and rationalistic explanation of everything. Such an environment however produces conflicting opinions about what observation and truth claims were valid. The presupposition of the modernist is that absolute truth exists and it can (and must) be discovered through rational thought.
Darwin’s theory of natural selection, though often dismissed as the sufficient cause for the evolution of lower lifeforms to higher ones, is the kernel of much modern thought. If what one observes is that nature selects the winners who go on to breed based upon the organism’s genetic desirability, then all living things progress from one stage of development to a better one. Thus the direction and hope for much of the late 19th and early 20th centuries saw hope that humanity will finally be able to overcome disease, famine, and other social evils. Humanity did not have a sin problem for that was too archaic of an idea; they had an ignorance problem and knowledge was the cure.
The 20th century however brought with it two massive wars. World War I dealt a blow to the thinking that humanity is progressing. However, “the war to end all wars” failed to extinguish the hope of a better humanity. World War II did what WWI could not. In an ironic twist the country which was home to the reformation became the center from one of the most vilified persons in all of history. The documentation of the atrocities of WWII are well documented and even the most hardened of people have a difficult time comprehending that one human being could be so cruel to other – not just another person but entire people groups.
Wherever this sense of morality came from, people seem to understand that such atrocities were incomparable evil and therefore must be rejected.
Rise of Postmodernity
Since modernity failed, what are the options to replace it? Some other options were tried before so perhaps one of them could provide a solution. First, the catholic church had a hegemonic grip on the people for over a millenia. By the time of the reformation, corruption was so rampant in the church that Martin Luther almost had nothing good to say about the Pope. ((He actually probably had nothing good to say.)) The era of the catholic church fell to the reformation ideas because the church claimed to the be sole arbiters of truth. The reformation counted by placing the emphasis and source of truth back into the scriptures.
Postmodernity then is this: it is a questioning and rejection of the presuppositions of the modern mindset. It is significantly different from modernism in that it rejects central tenant of modernism, namely that truth is absolute (there is no one truth) and that truth cannot be discovered by the rational mind.
Perhaps the current generation is the most postmodern in their thinking so for. One might label them the “whatever” generation. If there is no truth that is ultimately binding upon a person, they why allow someone else’s thoughts influence one’s own thinking?
So, how does one deal with postmodern thinking especially as a Christian? This is the question that unfortunately I have run out of space to answer. I do think that there are some ways to help the younger generation see the necessity of truth that applies to all and the Savior who is able to redeem all. I will try to work more on this idea for next time.